Winter barreled back into the West Coast mountains this week. Powder alerts flew out from resorts, and skiers and resort owners -- all in need of fresh snow -- grinned big.
La Nina, which pummeled many West Coast resorts with healthy snow in November and December, turned its attention to the Pacific Northwest and Canada during January. Snowfall became intermittent to scant. Rains pummeled northern resorts from British Columbia to Oregon, while warm, sunny days around Tahoe consolidated the snow pack. The weather seemed to signal an early onset of spring.
But now winter has returned with a vengeance.
A low pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska has hurled an onslaught of snow at ski areas in West Coast mountains. The deluge of powder came just in time for the Presidents Day holiday weekend.
Tahoe skier and riders, losing interest with the hard pack, perked up Monday, Feb . 14, when gale force winds gusting over 100 mph across the Sierra ridge tops signaled the leading edge of the storm. A few inches of snow dusted the resorts by Tuesday morning. But by Wednesday, most resorts opened with 12-to-28 inches of new snow, breaking the clutches of a meager snow weather cycle.
"We've had almost 2 feet already today, and it's coming down really hard," Amelia Richmond, spokesperson for Squaw Valley USA, told us mid-day Wednesday, Feb. 16. "People are calling it blower powder as the snow is super light and cold." Squaw Valley posted record-breaking snows in November and December, but like most of the Tahoe resorts, sunk into bluebird days with spring in January.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort reported a storm total of almost 3 feet of snow by Wednesday morning. Sugar Bowl Resort counted up 24 inches overnight at its summit. The snow reporter at Heavenly Mountain Resort noted continued heavy snowfall at a rate of about one inch every 45 minutes.
The National Weather Service is predicting storms to batter Tahoe through Friday, dropping 3-to-5 feet of snow before the holiday weekend. Thursday night is expected to unload another load of snow, and passes will see intermittent whiteout driving conditions.
Mammoth Mountain, contrary to Tahoe, picked up 2.5 feet of snow in January with its elevation maintaining the snow quality. But this new storm cycle, accompanied by cold temperatures and high snow-to-water ratios, should produce the powder. "More high snow-to-water ratios will likely continue throughout the rest of the week," said weather analyst Howard Sheckter of Mammothweather.com. "This by far will be the highest quality snowfall so far this year with over 5 feet of it by week's end."
The storm pelted into British Columbia a few days earlier than California. Whistler Blackcomb racked up more than 5.5 feet of new snow in the past week, and Mt. Washington Alpine Resort accumulated 6.5 feet of snow in four days. Most inland BC resorts picked up around 2 feet of fresh snow over the past several days, too.
Washington and Oregon resorts, many of which lost more than 2 feet of snow pack in January due to persistent, torrential rains, received new snow from the storm, too. Mt. Bachelor Resort tallied up the most snowfall with 3 feet of fresh snow delivered by Wednesday morning. "The last two days we got almost 50 percent more snow than all of January," spokesperson Andy Goggins told us.
The tail of the current storm system is expected abate just in time for holiday travel. "It couldn't work out more perfect," added Goggins. "It's clearing out in time for people to travel here for the holiday weekend."
The storm tracked inland from the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon, bringing around a foot of snow overnight to resorts in Idaho and Montana.
Avalanche conditions from British Columbia to the Sierras have shot up in hazard levels to considerable since Monday. Backcountry skiers should check with their local avalanche forecasting centers before heading out.